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:: The Return

The Return marks the feature film directorial debut of Andrey Zvyagintsev, an actor and television director whose film has made such an impression as to warrant comparisons with the early works of Andrey Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sukurov. Filmed near St. Petersburg, in between Lake Ladoga and the Finnish Gulf, The Return won the Golden Lion award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, Best Film at the Russian Film Press Awards and the “Golden Eagle” for Best Film at the Russian Film Academy Awards.

The film begins with Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), his brother Andrei (Vladimir Garin - who drowned shortly after the conclusion of filming) and a group of their friends jumping off a water tower into the sea. Ivan is teased and called ‘a chicken’ by Andrei and friends when he is unable to overcome his fear of jumping into the water below. He runs home to seek comfort from his mother (Natalia Vdovina), and when both boys arrive, they are informed that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) has returned, from where, we are not told. The boys are curious but seem slightly under whelmed by the return of their father and need to consult a well-worn photograph taken years earlier to confirm his identity. They are told that their father is taking them fishing for a couple of days and an intriguing road trip full of unanswered questions begins.

Zvyagintsev’s film leaves the big narrative questions unanswered; a fact that can hinder the enjoyment or understanding of many films. However this device really works in The Return, giving the film a mysterious mythical quality, drawing the viewer into the intrigue as opposed to being simply told a story. The burning question surrounds the boys’ father and where he has been for the past twelve years. If his gruff, domineering demeanour and his uncompromising bullying of his sons is any indication, it would seem most likely that he has been in prison or the army (or perhaps both) and his motivations for taking his sons on that most fatherly of outings seem obscure. He is essentially a stranger going through the motions of playing the role of parent, insisting on being addressed as Papa as if to reinforce his identity to the boys but displaying no compassion or affection toward them, just a ruthless need to instruct and guide them.

Along the way, Andrei takes photographs, which comprise the montage at the end of the film, which tell a different story of the trip, showing the few light-hearted moments the boys manage to steal in spite of their father. The photographs, like the one taken years earlier showing their father with the rest of the family, reveal how a pictorial memory made up of fleeting moments captured on film can show an idealised scenario with little relation to the truth. Like the family photograph where there is no real ‘family’, Andrei’s photographs depict a seemingly happy holiday where there has been only fleeting seconds of fun.

Zvyagintsev has deliberately kept the look of The Return sparse and uncluttered by detail, in keeping with the limited dialogue of the script. The landscapes are bleak and flat, the town where the trio stops for lunch appears to have no inhabitants and the colour palette of the film is predominantly grey and blue. The Return is proof that a strong story can be told visually, with minimal verbal explanation by way of dialogue between the characters. If Zvyagintsev’s film is any indication of the quality of recent Russian cinema, the upcoming Russian Film Festival will be a must see.